Michigan Gov. Whitmer Needs to Protect Our Drinking Water and Local Businesses, Not Foreign Oil Companies

As Michigan faces an unprecedented health and economic crisis due to coronavirus pandemic, the Canadian oil giant, Enbridge, is attempting to take advantage of the situation by advancing their demands to build a tunnel through the heart of our Great Lakes. The proposed tunnel is a diversion from the real issue: the urgent need to remove Line 5 oil pipelines from the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac to protect our drinking water, regional businesses and our way of life. Enbridge’s proposed tunnel distracts not only from the pandemic but also from the urgent need to remove Line 5 from the open waters of the Great Lakes immediately – we can’t wait the 5-10 years estimated to build a tunnel (which is very likely an underestimate for a project that many believe will never be built). During that time, a rupture from Line 5 would be devastating to our already reeling local economy, critical natural resources and wildlife habitat.

While Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her administration work around the clock to provide urgent resources to Michiganders so they can survive, Enbridge has made the decision to advance permitting a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac. This despite the lack of a publicly available feasibility study for a project that would be drilled through the bottomlands of the Great Lakes, creating a major risk to our environment and drinking water.

Enbridge’s Line 6b ruptured pipeline, which sent over one million gallons of tar sands oil into 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River system. (Credit: EPA/USFWS)

Over the past 10 years, Enbridge has hidden critical information about the conditions of the current 67-year-old line, including major integrity issues that went unreported for years. Public engagement in the oversight of this company is the only reason those integrity issues were exposed, and it is completely inappropriate that permitting for a project of this nature would move forward while very few citizens can think beyond how they will continue to feed and care for their families each day.

It is not possible for citizens to fully participate in this key permitting process at this time – particularly since a large population that would be directly impacted by this project have little to no access to internet. The governor has even suspended portions of the Freedom of Information Act since in-person requests cannot be filled. The state of Michigan should not move forward until citizens have full access to engagement, including the ability to attend public meetings in person and obtain full and timely information through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The fact that Enbridge would not blink at ramming through a dubious project during a pandemic should come as no surprise. Enbridge has a long track record of oil spills, leaks, accidents, explosions, and environmental damage. It has paid more than $187 million in penalties and settlements due to 58 environmental and business practice violations. There have already been at least 33 spills from the land-based segments of the Line 5, not to mention over one million gallons of oil gushed into the Kalamazoo River in one of the largest inland oil disasters in U.S. history in 2010, which was made worse by their lack of preparedness and failure to detect the spill for 17 hours. Through all this, Enbridge has operated with a lack of transparency that has irked political leaders and citizens of all political persuasions. The Great Lakes are one thing that unites Michiganders, and that’s why the vast majority of citizens oppose leaving Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.

Continued operation of Line 5 in the Great Lakes is an urgent threat to our water, economy and environment, especially during a time when federal pipeline agencies have halted critical pipeline safety enforcements due to public health risks from the growing pandemic. Michigan businesses are hurting, particularly those in recreational tourism, and those are exactly the businesses that would be hurt if Line 5 were to rupture. The state of Michigan spent nearly seven years evaluating Line 5 risks and alternatives and there is bipartisan support for the urgent need to remove these lines. The state should be focused on removing Line 5 from the Straits now by revoking the easement, supporting Attorney General Dana Nessel’s legal efforts, and implementing energy alternatives. That’s the critical need at the moment, not processing a permit for a massive oil tunnel during a time when the public is facing a health and economic crisis.

The nearly 70-year-old Line 5 gouged by an anchor strike in 2018. (Credit: US Senate, via Enbridge)

Gov. Whitmer has shown exemplary leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while that should remain her priority, standing up for the Great Lakes, Michigan drinking water, and our communities are part of protecting public health and safety. As the state considers an exit strategy from this crisis, the governor should follow the recommendations coming out of her U.P Energy Task Force, which outlines ways to deliver affordable and reliable energy sources for Michiganders and provides a path for the removal of the nearly 70-year-old pipelines out of our freshwater.

Line 5 remains an unacceptable risk. It is becoming more and more urgent for the state of Michigan to consider how we need to transition as a society to build resilience and independence. Line 5 could face a shutdown at any moment, for any number of reasons, including rupture, economic collapse of the oil industry or even court order from any one of the pending legal cases. The transition away from Line 5 needs to happen immediately to ensure that citizens of Michigan are protected and have long-term affordable, reliable and clean energy as well as healthy Great Lakes.  The governor should not be distracted by Enbridge’s diversion tactics during this time of crisis.

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